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The Pentagon’s Journalist-Vetting Program

For years, reporters who embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq have traded rumors that the embed office had a blacklist for journalists whose work was unflattering. It generally takes months to work out embeds, a process that involves the submission of clips from the outset. Sometimes embeds fall through, leading to cynical grumbling and arched eyebrows. But no one ever proved that such a thing existed, and the talk remained at the level of bar-stool venting.

Then on Monday, Stars and Stripes reported that the Pentagon contracted the Rendon Group — a public relations firm that had made millions from the CIA by “creat[ing] the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power” in the media, according to an award-winning Rolling Stone profile — to vet embed-seeking journalists for “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” coverage according to “mission objectives.” For any media organization that can’t afford the several thousand dollars every day for security and transportation in war zones — most of them, basically — that’s, uh, problematic. I’ve embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There were many places in both countries where unembedded reporting by American journalists is a life-or-death gamble.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan told the paper that the only vetting that takes place isn’t for utility to the war effort but for responsibility. “If it’s accurate, that’s a successful news story, whether good or bad,” Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said. But today the paper quoted new documents from Rendon showing that not only does the vetting take place, but so does a discussion of strategies to manipulate reporters:

One reporter on the staff of one of America’s pre-eminent newspapers is rated in a Pentagon report as “neutral to positive” in his coverage of the U.S. military. Any negative stories he writes “could possibly be neutralized” by feeding him mitigating quotes from military officials.

Another reporter, from a TV station, provides coverage from a “subjective angle,” according to his Pentagon profile. Steering him toward covering “the positive work of a successful operation” could “result in favorable coverage.”

To some degree, it’s hard to get exercised by the fact that public-affairs officers try to sway journalists’ coverage. Shocking, I tell you! But denying that it occurs at all is bizarre, and the question becomes whether certain journalists are denied their embeds based on the effort. One Stars and Stripes reporter, Heath Druzen, was kicked out of an embed in Iraq earlier this year after Druzen didn’t highlight developments that the brigade he was with wanted highlighted.

Then there’s this clever bit of argumentative jujitsu:

In a statement e-mailed to Stars and Stripes, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, director of communications for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, wrote: “To imply journalists embedded with our forces only serve to highlight positive aspects of our mission slights the professional journalists who regularly embed with our forces and report what they experience, both good and bad.”

Somehow it doesn’t seem plausible to argue that Stars and Stripes is slandering its colleagues who make it past a questionable embed vetting process. Will Stars and Stripes, a paper available in most every dining hall in Iraq and Afghanistan, be denied further embeds?

*You can follow TWI on Twitter and Facebook. *

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